Matthew Bettelheim is a wildlife biologist, science writer, and natural historian in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Over the last few centuries, natural history collections worldwide have amassed over a billion insect specimens. Although most of these specimens are carefully pinned and labeled, the documentation and digitization of each specimen necessary to bring these collections into the 21st Century through digital photography and meticulous data entry has moved at a snail’s pace.
In 2010, the Essig Museum of Entomology at the University of California, Berkeley, kicked off the CalBug project, which focuses on insect and spider specimens collected in or around California between 1880 and the present. CalBug represents a collaborative effort between Essig and eight other California museums to digitize and geo-reference their over one million entomological specimens. And more recently, they’ve turned to crowdsourcing the effort through the Zooniverse citizen science project, Notes from Nature.
Citizen science projects like Notes from Nature harvest the idle hands and minds of the public to accomplish Herculean goals through menial tasks. Volunteer transcriptionists are presented with a high-resolution digital image of a pinned specimen together with any relevant labels. Your task is simple – carefully enter the data as it appears on the labels: country, state, county, locality, collection date(s), collector, and other specifics. You don’t need to be an entomologist or curator or Ph.D. to lend a hand; there are forums to post questions if you hit a puzzler, and each field has detailed instructions to guide the uninitiated.
CalBug is one of three current Notes from Nature projects. At 44% completion, CalBug is already nearing the half-way mark, while Herbarium (28%) and Ornithological (coming soon) are comparatively still in their infancy.
As you slog through specimens, you may be surprised to find a kaleidoscope of butterflies and other insects collected from your home town or somewhere close by. If that isn’t incentive enough, those that register (registration is optional) can track their progress and earn badges: an ‘egg’ for every record, a ‘caterpillar’ for every 25 records, and a ‘butterfly’ for every 100. The average data entry time for each specimen averages 3 minutes, which when multiplied by the masses, shaves years off the goal of logging every specimen for future study. Even if you can only spare one evening, every little bit helps; what the specimens lack in size, they make up for in numbers.
LOST SPECIES OF THE BAY AREA
Presumed Extinct: Clear Lake splittail, thicktail chub
As with the presumed extinct ivory-billed woodpecker reported in Arkansas in 2004, there is always the chance that a long-lost plant or animal will be rediscovered, thanks to persistent searching and luck. That’s true even in a busy metropolitan area like the San Francisco Bay Area. In May 2005, botanist Michael Park stumbled upon a population of Mount Diablo buckwheat (Eriogonum truncatum) on the slopes of Mount Diablo. The buckwheat was a species long thought extinct, last seen in 1936 by UC Berkeley botany graduate student (and later Save Mount Diablo cofounder) Mary Bowerman.
Spurred by the rediscovery of the buckwheat, it bears asking today which plants and animals endemic to – but presumed extinct in – the San Francisco Bay Area scientists continue to search for in the hope they may still be hanging on by a thread, waiting to be found and protected.
Clear Lake splittail (Pogonichthys ciscoides)
thicktail chub (Gila crassicauda)
With major fisheries teetering on the brink of collapse, it’s unlikely that many people have noticed the plight of two Bay Area endemic minnows that haven’t touched a creel in 30 years or more. The Clear Lake splittail (Pogonichthys ciscoides), the lake-bound cousin of the Sacramento splittail (P. macrolepidotus), is said to have schooled in great numbers in Clear Lake, the largest natural lake in California. In April and May, the eight-inch-long splittail would venture into upstream tributaries to spawn. Three weeks later, the young would return to the lake to feed on zooplankton and the native Clear Lake gnat in silvery schools that led early settlers to call them “silversides.” In the early 1940s, Clear Lake splittail populations plummeted, but it wasn’t until 1973 that the fish was belatedly recognized as a species. At about that time splittail vanished from the lake, replaced by non-native bluegill and, ironically, the inland silverside (Menidia beryllina). The latter was introduced in 1967 by the state to control vast clouds of annoying but harmless Clear Lake gnats, and it likely outcompeted Clear Lake splittail for shallow shoreline habitat. Other factors that may have tipped the species toward extinction were the channelization and the diversion of Clear Lake’s tributaries, where the splittail spawned.
Although its bones dominate Native American middens along the Sacramento River, Putah Creek, and the Pajaro-Salinas drainage, the thicktail chub (Gila crassicauda) is even less well known. This four-inch-long chub was also found in Clear Lake, the Delta, the Napa River, Alameda Creek, and several other Bay tributaries. Up until the late 19th century, thicktail chub weren’t uncommon in San Francisco fish markets, and their remains have been recovered from 19th-century Chinese privies in the city’s Mission District. But as early as 1884 their populations were reportedly waning. In 1957, the last known specimen was caught in the Sacramento River near Rio Vista. Throughout the species’ range, stream diversions and modifications, the loss of tule beds and shallow lowland lakes, and the introduction of largemouth bass and other nonnative predators likely drove the thicktail chub to extinction.
Since both the San Francisco estuary and Clear Lake are regularly sampled, UC Davis fisheries biologist Peter Moyle says the likelihood of finding either species is close to zero. But Robert Leidy, an ecologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, remains optimistic about the thicktail chub. “It could possibly show up in any part of its historical habitat,” says Leidy. “It could be upper Coyote Creek, it could be the Pajaro drainage, it could be in North Bay marshes or the Petaluma River.”
Field Guide to the Lost Species of the Bay Area
SPECIES: Clear Lake splittail (Pogonichthys ciscoides)
LISTING STATUS: none
FIRST/LAST RECORDED: ~1930/~1970
RANGE: known only from Clear Lake in Lake County
HABITAT: Clear Lake and its tributary waters, plus an outlying record from Cache Creek (downstream of Clear Lake)
FIELD NOTES: a lake-bound cousin of the Sacramento splittail (P. macrolepidotus), Clear Lake’s shoreline splittail wasn’t officially described until 1973, approximately the time it went extinct; aside from geographic isolation, the differences between the species are morphological; compared to the Sacramento splittail, the Clear Lake splittail has more gill rakers, more lateral line scales, smaller fins, a terminal mouth with absent or reduced barbels, and a relatively symmetrical tail fin
Inland Fishes of California, by Peter B. Moyle
Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of California, March 13, 1996, by Samuel M. McGinnis
SPECIES: thicktail chub (Gila crassicauda)
LISTING STATUS: none
FIRST/LAST RECORDED: present in Native American middens/1957
RANGE: reported specifically in Sacramento River, Putah Creek, Pajaro-Salinas drainage, Clear Lake, San Francisco Bay, Coyote Creek, Central Valley lowlands, and Bay tributary streams
HABITAT: lowland lakes, sloughs, slow-moving river stretches, and surface waters of the San Francisco Bay
FIELD NOTES: thicktail chub remains are reportedly common in Native American middens along the Sacramento River, and have been recovered from 19th-century Chinese privies in San Francisco’s Mission District; in the 19th century the fish was commonly sold in San Francisco fish markets and was served in Sacramento saloons; compared to other chub, the thicktail chub is a heavy-bodied fish with a small, cone-shaped head, greenish brown to purplish black back, and yellowish sides and belly
Inland Fishes of California, by Peter B. Moyle
Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of California, March 13, 1996, by Samuel M. McGinnis
The account excerpted above was originally featured in the October/December 2007 issue of Bay Nature magazine.
Illustrations by Devin Cecil-Wishing.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve turned the car around – or cajoled my wife or any other unfortunate driver I happen to be with at the time to do the same – after having caught a ‘glimpse’ at sixty-five miles an hour of what could only have been a western pond turtle on the side of the road. To my chagrin, my so-called turtles have always ended up being a boot or rock or junkyard scrap. I’m still unclear if if that makes me an alarmist or a wishful thinker, seeing turtles in peril where there is neither.
Once, driving home several years ago, I happened to come up behind a car that had stopped in my rural neighborhood to pick up a wayward western pond turtle. Too late, I realized what it was the front passenger had retrieved from the road. I was tailing them, working up a pitch to negotiate the turtle’s safe return, when the car lurched to a stop, all four doors flew open, and the passengers leapt from the car. Hysterical, one of them was all too eager to tell me that, moments after retrieving their prize, the put-upon turtle had proceeded to pee all over the car while scrabbling and scratching to be released. Surprised, the young women had dropped the turtle at her feet, where the hardened prisoner made a break under the front seats for the driver’s-side, sending the passengers into a panic. They were all too glad to return their hostage, a hardy three-legged western pond turtle I dubbed “tripod” before I released it at a BLM property in a pond a short distance away.
But this Friday, traveling along Highway 84 in San Mateo County, for the first time in years I had the misfortune of being right. The turtle in this case – a mature female – lay along the roadside shoulder in an advanced state of decay. Her plastron, crushed no doubt beneath the tires of a passing car, had been flipped upward as though on a piano hinge. I can only imagine that she had first been flipped onto her back by the front tire before the rear tire pinned the anterior of her plastron and carapace against the hardtop, caving the shell like a walnut in a nutcracker.
Too often, roadways parallel waterways, acting as a barrier obstructing daily and seasonal movement and dispersal between overwintering sites, nesting grounds, and the turtle’s natal waters. There’s no telling where this unfortunate turtle was heading. To or from the nearby creek? In search of a mate or a spot to nest? I checked the shell cavity for eggs. She was running on empty.
Fortunately, not every scenario is so grim. Two weeks ago, two colleagues turned up at work on a Monday morning with photos of a mature female western pond turtle they had come across while cycling along a roadway in Marin County. Because the turtle had been found straddling the centerline, there was no telling in which direction she had been headed, so the Samaritans had relocated the turtle across the road to safety toward the nearby creek.
In this case, they did the right thing, moving the turtle out harm’s way. But scenarios like these raise a good question: what should you do if you find a western pond turtle in the road?
To help answer that question, several years ago I developed a full-color, tri-fold brochure describing our local western pond turtle, what to do if you find one, and guidance to private landowners and public land managers alike on the best ways to protect and conserve western pond turtles through proactive land stewardship. I’ve excerpted the relevant text below:
Western pond turtles leave the safety of the water more often than you might think. Turtles come to land to nest; escape drying creeks and ponds or winter floods; hibernate; find mates; and to seek out new ponds and streams.
If you come across a healthy western pond turtle on dry land that is in no immediate danger, do not disturb it. Already skittish by nature, they are especially so on land, leading females to abandon nesting attempts. Make a point of leaving (and leave!) by walking away with heavy footsteps and loud voices. If you sneak off, the turtle may wait you out – leaving it vulnerable to predators or the elements. If you find a live turtle crossing a road, safely move it to the far side in the direction it was heading.
If you come across a western pond turtle that appears ill or has sustained recent injuries (e.g., from a pet, vehicle, or fishing tackle), carefully transport it in a covered container to a local wildlife rehabilitation center immediately. Note where you first discovered the turtle so it can be returned to the closest watershed.
And it’s free! So download the .pdf, print, and distribute.
In a bid to go green, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW; formerly, the California Department of Fish and Game) is digitizing their 99-year-old quarterly scientific journal, California Fish and Game. In addition to making all issues post-December 2012 available online, they’re also dusting off the stack of journals in the archives. In the coming months, CDFW will be working toward digitizing back-issues dating back to 1914, when the journal was first published.
Back when the journal debuted, California was unquestionably a different place. Among the journal’s opening pages were these missives from the Board of Fish and Game Commissioners:
“The wild game belongs to the people in their sovereign capacity and as such should be enjoyed by the people and cared for and preserved for their benefit. It must not be considered as the property of a class and no class should be permitted to monopolize it… The right of any generation to careless indifference or wanton destruction can not be admitted. Each generation is the guardian of the existing resources of the world; it comes into a great inheritance, but only as a trustee; and there is no recovery or resurrection of an extinct species.”
– Ernest Schaeffle
“So often we lock the door after the horse is stolen. Let it not be so with the game birds and wild creatures of California.”
– Frank M. Rutherford
“Preserved game and fish, like preserved forests or preserved water powers, are of no practical public good. Preserved fish and game die; so do preserved trees; preserved water-powers run to waste. Conserved – that is, used and protected – fish and game, forests, water-powers and all other natural resources are, of course, of practical benefit to the public. And therefore, fish and game conservation – not preservation – commissions are of practical benefit to the public… Our game, however, can not be conserved, or even preserved, if the cover in which and the food on which it lives be not conserved. Our fish can not be conserved, or even preserved, if the waters in which they live be not kept at least free from pollution. If our wild places be permitted to be fire ravaged and destroyed, if our streams and bays be made the dumping grounds for noxious materials, then there will be no use for game and fish conserving laws, no need for a fish and game conservation commission – there will be no fish and game to be conserved.”
– George C. Pardee
During the journal’s first year alone (Volume 1 spanned 1914 through 1915), Joseph Grinnell, Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, raised the hue and cry concerning the “ravages of the house cat” on native bird populations and the decline of the wood duck; the price of a dozen quail and the bounty on mountain lion “scalps, or skin with scalp attached” were equivalent – $20.00, or $465 in today’s prices; Mr. Edward A. Salisbury was touring the state of California showing moving pictures featuring the wildlife of the west, including the life history of the steelhead trout, treeing and roping wildcats and mountain lions, and hunting geese for the San Francisco market; a game warden’s salary ranged from $720 to $1,500 ($16,759 to $34,915 in today’s prices) a year; and the non-native opossum was confirmed to have been introduced to California from Tennessee by a San Jose jeweler in 1910.
Curiously, the journal’s trademark green cover – a triptych featuring a trout, mule deer, and quail – didn’t make its appearance until Volume 1, Number 2, and has changed very little over the years. Looking backwards, that triptych is perhaps the only constant California has seen in the last century.
Back by popular demand for the sixth year running, the Elkhorn Slough Coastal Training Program is sponsoring the Western Pond Turtle Workshop 2013 with presenters Drs. David Germano (Professor, California State University Bakersfield) and Galen Rathbun (Research Associate, California Academy of Sciences). The workshop, slated for Thursday, June 27, 2013 at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve in Watsonville, CA, will provide a comprehensive review of the species’ natural history and conservation efforts with both classroom lecture and a hands-on lab. Among the topics covered are species identification, sampling techniques, geographic distribution, upland/aquatic habitat requirements and management, movement/dispersal, ecology, survey methodology, and how to avoid and minimize impacts to the species.
I whole-heartedly recommend this workshop, having taken it several years ago. Space is limited, so act now! This year’s registration deadline is June 3rd.
One of the pluses the Elkhorn Slough Coastal Training Program provides is free online access to workshop materials and related peer-reviewed papers. Make sure to check it out here!